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Is your customer service a thinly veiled sales job?

Have you ever walked away from a customer service situation and felt scammed?

In a recent Problogger post, Darren Rowse addressed a common problem. Titled What Have You Been Putting Off and What’s Holding You Back?, he goes on to list all the reasons why he hasn’t tackled an eBook he planned to write. One thing he worries about resonated with me precisely because it’s a pet peeve of mine.

Is it a gift or is it a marketing ploy?
Among his fears, Rowse includes, “fear that people would critique me for selling something and not giving it away for free”. Personally, I believe it’s irrational for people to expect something for nothing. Rowse knows it, too,  but he worries about it. Bloggers, like everyone, expect to be paid for their expertise and charge for their products. If something is free, then the tacit understanding is it will generate goodwill and, usually, contribute to a marketing database. My problem is if a business gives me a gift when, in fact, they’re trying to make a sale.

The Not Happy case study
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll be familiar with an ongoing service problem I’ve had with a new car purchase. I’ll restrain myself for your benefit. My friends, family and followers on Twitter are all sick of hearing me complain about it. I’m sick of complaining about it. Suffice it to say a resolution was reached and I’m happy with the result. What I’m not happy about, however, is what has become the final nail in the coffin of my customer relationship with the car dealer.

At the end of the service appointment that finally rectified the problem with my car, I was presented with an envelope. It didn’t have my name on it but the person from the service department said it was for me, for my trouble. The envelope had been around awhile and had been stained with water as if it had been left in the rain. Since we’ve had no rain in Perth for weeks and weeks, it was obvious the envelope had travelled a bit. Inside was a preprinted letter on heavy cardboard saying:

Thank You!

We just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for being a valued client of SUBURBAN CAR DEALER. (I’ve changed the name, to protect the guilty in this case.) Without you and others like yourself we wouldn’t be the success that we are.

To express our appreciation, we would like you to accept this very special gift certificate.
This certificate is valued at $200 with one of Australia’s leading studios NEVERHEARDOFTHEM PHOTOGRAPHY. This certificate will cover your photo session, an 8×12 inch portrait and you will also have some remaining credit for any further prints.

It goes on with a sales pitch for the photography studio, then lists the obligations I’m bound to if I want to take advantage of this “gift”, including registering my details. It’s signed, “The Team @ SUBURBAN CAR DEALER”.

So what is my gripe?
The first thing that went through my mind is “Who in SUBURBAN CAR DEALER has an interest in NEVERHEARDOFTHEM PHOTOGRAPHY?” I’d have to be daft to consider this a gift. The “thank you” ploy is an obvious attempt to get me to spend money somewhere else. Nothing about the letter was personalised. There wasn’t even a name on the outside of the envelope. I have to leave my details with a company I have no interest in doing business with in an obvious effort to help build someone else’s marketing database. And, because I’ve done business with a professional photographer before, I know if I do take them up on their ludicrous gift, I’m going to be pressured to buy more than the $200 gift certificate.

What would have worked?
If SUBURBAN CAR DEALER WANTED to appease me, it would have been a simple undertaking. A personalised letter of apology, on company letterhead and signed by the manager, would have convinced me someone cared about my experience. If they felt the need to reimburse me for my trouble, a discount on future service or even the offer of a free car wash would have impressed me. My concern, as their (formerly) loyal customer, was no one cared about my problem or me. I still feel that way.

The Take-Away
Make sure your motives are true when dealing with your customers. I expected transparency and attention. Instead, I was fobbed off with a clumsy attempt to provide marketing for an unrelated company. My fury about poor service was compounded with an insulting “thank you”. I won’t be doing business with SUBURBAN CAR DEALER again. I will suffer the inconvenience of future service at CITY CAR DEALER. One thing is for sure, my next car will be from a different automotive company altogether.

Do you get upset when a vendor’s focus is on marketing and not service? How do you deal with it?